Survival Horror fans will often point to Capcom’s Sweet Home as being the origins of the genre. Admittedly, the game and others laid the groundwork for the themes of what was to become Survival Horror that would explode onto the mainstream with Resident Evil. PC gamers, however, have long had a legitimate claim to the genre’s inspiration with Infogrames’ Alone in the Dark. Sadly, the series has seen better days since its debut in 1992, and often gets overlooked by modern audiences. But, with the original game’s 30th anniversary this year, it’s worth reminding longtime fans and newcomers just how innovative it truly was.
The story for the original game revolves around series’ protagonist, private investigator Edward Carnby, in Louisiana, 1924. Carnby has been assigned to investigate the death of painter Jeremy Hartwood in his gigantic mansion Derceto. It would seem before his death, Hartwood’s paintings took on subject matter that was most grotesque. The resulting work apparently drove him insane, resulting in Hartwood hanging himself. Hartwood’s niece, Emily Hartwood, joins Carnby in his investigation. The duo soon discovers there’s more to the mansion than what was apparently let on.
Alone in the Dark was conceived by Frédérick Raynal, a staff programmer at Infogrames, and naturally, a fan of horror films (particularly George A. Romero’s Dawn of The Dead). Initially, while developing the game, Raynal felt that computer graphics weren’t quite up to the task of conveying the horror that was to be expected by the team. Admittedly, AitD’s polygonal graphics were primitive and goofy-looking even back then, but the graphics were only one part of the equation. As a result of the limitations, Raynal and the team relied on text in the form of books that the player finds to establish setting and develop mood.
And really, what better way to establish mood than some good old Lovecraft?
Incidentally, Infogrames had acquired the Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG license for AitD, but the plan was ultimately scrapped once license holder Chaosium determined that AitD would be “too simplistic” to make proper use of the RPG mechanics. Instead, Raynal and the team focused on shaping AitD’s story to take on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. The texts the player finds in the mansion were filled full of the maddening horrors Lovecraft conceived, as well as steering a haunted house story into something more Lovecraftian.
Even before you installed the game, Infrogrames put the manual and inserts found in the box to great effect, establishing the mood and story for AitD. In addition to the basic manual that explains the controls, saving/loading your game, etc., you had what fans referred to as “The Blue Book” or “Weapons Manual”, which was a tiny 256-page book that contained two illustrations on each page that would function as the game’s security protection. During the game, you’d be asked to refer to a page in the book to select the correct symbols in order to proceed. It might not seem like a big deal for those who didn’t grow up in this era, but the sheer quality of the book and its “cool factor” attempts to give players a connection to the game.
If that didn’t do it for you, the other included goodie was the August 1924 issue of The Mystery Examiner, a faux newsletter that was in Hartwood’s belongings that contains “news coverage” of Harwood’s suicide, and the strange happenings in the Derceto Mansion. In addition to ads for oil lamps, gramophones and pistols (which coincidentally you’ll be encountering in the game itself), it also contains a biography of Lovecraft himself, as well as a paper on mental disorders, and an excerpt from one of Hartwood’s novels. Lastly, there’s a drawing on the back of the paper by Hartwood that keeps in theme with the Lovecraftian mythos, and the idea of losing one’s sanity when exposed to such cosmic horrors.
And really, when looking at AitD‘s graphics, and the amount of effort Infogrames took to establish the story outside of the game, you could see where Chaosium had a point. The polygonal graphics for the characters were clunky and sometimes downright goofy-looking. AitD was originally supposed to make use of scanned photos to use as backgrounds, but this proved to be too advanced at the time for the tools available to Infogrames. Instead, the game used a mixture of 3D polygons and drawn bitmaps. Also, due to the limitations of what they did have, this mix of elements could only be achieved using static camera angles. However, this was turned into a win for the team, as they could use the static shots to create dramatic compositions.
It doesn’t take long for this to be put to use, as the opening shot from the mansion window of a sinister figure peering out to see Carnby make his way up the driveway is quite ominous. This shot later became a trademark for the series, appearing in the three sequels. And as expected, the camera played a role in the jump scares, such as the monster bursting through the window in the attic if you fail to block the window. Some players at the time found the camera to be disorienting with its constant shift, often within the same room. Again, the awkwardness is intentional, going back to the idea of dramatic effect, as well as introducing tension.
Of course, the music and sound played its part in heightening the scares and the tension. Acclaimed composer Philippe Vachey provided the moody score for the game, as well as some genuinely creepy ambient tracks that when combined with the excellent sound design, made for a complete terror package.
Part of that terror (though probably not intentionally) comes from the controls and interface for AitD. They were clunky then as they are now. To perform any action, AitD has you moving to the in-game menu to go into various modes in order to perform a specific task (Open/Search, Close, Push and Fight). While not as cumbersome as Resident Evil’s, both games do share the commonality of having to “ready” your character when it comes to combat, or examining items in your inventory. And like RE, you can “aim” your attack in AitD, though as mentioned, it’s extremely awkward. Edward and Emily have often egregious wind-up animations when attacking or when they’re attacked, making combat a frustration. Couple with the shortage of weapons and ammo, it’s better to often avoid direct combat and run, or you’ll end up dying.
And you’ll die a lot in AitD. While you’re not at the mercy of having to find a typewriter and ink ribbons as in Resident Evil to save your game, AitD will have you doing the frowned-upon action of “save scumming” (constant save and reload). However, it’s practically a necessity with AitD, due to the many instant deaths you’ll face, as well as the game’s trial-and-error gameplay. Adding to this is inventory management. Unlike RE, where you had an item per slot, in AitD, your inventory is limited by weight. You also don’t have a trusty inventory chest, requiring you to remember where you dropped an item, or even deciding whether to pick the item up at all. This is especially important, as AitD makes heavy use of puzzle-solving, and the solutions aren’t always clear (much like some of RE’s puzzles). Bottom line: Alone in the Dark is hard, but not unfairly hard if you take your time and plan ahead.
Even with the difficulty and shortcomings (both perceived and technical), Alone in the Dark was a success for Infogrames. Originally released on 3.25-inch floppies, the game was later released on CD, with Redbook audio and voice-over for the character descriptions and all of the written documents found in the game. It was even localized and released in Japan, where it caught the attention of a certain Shinji Mikami. The game was also released for the short-lived 3DO console, though this version runs at a lower resolution, and the characters have lower polygon counts. It does have the benefit of an added run button, however.
While it would be redundant to list off everything Resident Evil did that Alone in the Dark had either laid the foundation for or outright implemented, there’s no question that Infogrames had created the first true Survival Horror game (even if it wasn’t initially referred to as such). 30 years on, the game’s story and presentation still have that pull for many who grew up playing the game back in the day, or for those curious to see where it all started. While the series is now unfortunately dormant, Survival Horror fans owe it to themselves to experience what PC gamers have known all along with Alone in the Dark. While it’s not quite timeless in some areas, the terror and scares still remain potent.
Thanks to Insert-Disk for the additional info!
Original Alone in the Dark trilogy is available on GoG.com.